Joaquin Phoenix is right in the middle of a cultural renaissance at the moment. Always an extremely talented actor, he’s a four-time Oscar nominee including for Best Actor in Joker (2019) as well as winning two Golden Globe Awards, a Grammy Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, an Independent Spirit Award, and various awards from the Cannes Film Festival, Venice Film Festival and National Board of Review. His performance in Joker has been widely lauded as one of the best. Back in 2018, he gave a rare extended interview with Salon about his process and thoughts working on the film You Were Never Really Here, here are some of his key takeaways.
“For me, that’s what I’m aiming for, that’s the best moment is when I’m not making conscious decisions”
In talking about his preparation for the film, Phoenix talks about attaining a state of grace where he is no longer consciously doing anything. That his sub-conscious mind or the mind of the character has taken full control and he’s able to release control to it in the moment. This is the ideal outcome when working on screen in the high-intensity roles that Phoenix prefers.
“If I ever go on set and try and consciously do one of the ideas that I have had, it’s always really bad, without fail”
Along with this need to let his conscious decision making go, comes the alternative. That, if he has planned a moment with conviction and goes to bring that exact imagined experience onto a real-life film set, it undoubtedly goes wrong. I’ve mentioned this idea before on StageMilk, but it comes back to prepare – don’t plan! Know exactly what your lines are and your motivation, but be completely open to stimulus on the day. The world you imagine and the actual set, or choreography can be vastly different. Holding yourself set in too many choices can be detrimental to your performance on set.
“I like to have a lot of options available, then make a choice in the moment. I’m trying more and more just to really have all these possibilities available but not make any kind of decision until I’m in the experience.”
Anthony Hopkins, the legendary Welsh actor, allegedly reads his script over 200 times for each role. In his hotel room, he’ll prepare hundreds of options for how he could say the line and then in the moment, it comes out as it comes out. From this quote it sounds as if Phoenix is in a similar boat, he likes to have many ways of saying the line at his disposal and in the heat of the scene the most appropriate one will present its self.
“I try not to make rules about the character… I don’t like that idea of ‘my character would never do that!’ I don’t know what the f*** they’d do, I do things all the time that are out of character, what does that even mean in character?”
This is something you quite often hear actors say, who are too set in their opinion of the character “Oh my character wouldn’t do that.” How would you know everything that a person is capable of? People do out of ‘character’ things all the time! Take Luke in Star Wars would fighting Vader be ‘in character’ for him at the start of Episode IV? No way! His character changes over time, just as people change over time. Knowing with absolute certainty what any character would or wouldn’t do is a highway to committing yourself to a specific set of choices that might block you to some more interesting or dynamic options.
“I don’t think there are really any rules, each movie tells you what it wants…sometimes you talk about things on one movie in a way that you wouldn’t on another.”
Every project you work on is different and you may need to adjust your approach depending on the situation. Additionally, every project gives you different parameters, a film with a well-known character based on a book or a graphic novel is going to give you a very different experience to a ‘mocumentary’ or a totally original piece of writing. Phoenix’s point here is that just because you did it one way on one project, doesn’t mean it will go that way on another. Always be open to stimulus and change.
“That happens oftentimes, you do all this research and you just start taking things that you think are important, that’s what research is for me it arms me to say this is mine now and this is how I am going to behave.”
Research is vital to every role and what it gives you is a firm foundation in which to ground your character’s motivation. This is going to be different for every character in every role and what you uncover informs you to the extent that it can become like a protective shell that engulfs your choices. Appropriate research will empower you to own who your character is, in that moment.
So there you have it, for Joaquin it’s all about releasing in the moment, having a firm grounding in research and allowing himself to be open to stimulus from his character’s world. If you’d like to check out the full interview you can do so here: